Why Context Matters
This post contains spoilers for recent events in The 100.
A couple of weeks ago, The 100 commander Lexa was killed by a stray bullet, moments after sleeping with protagonist, Clarke. The internet uproar was instant, and has only gathered steam since. Showrunner Jason Rothberg lost 15,000 followers on Twitter. The show’s ratings plummeted the following week, and hashtags like #LGBTfansdeservebetter trended during the show’s timeslot. The uproar was so widespread that I personally came across many discussions of the deaths of lesbian characters in media before I even learned why this was such a hot topic once again — it even recently made BBC news.
Of course, critics have been quick to dismiss the outcry. Characters die on genre TV, after all, and the actress who plays Lexa is contracted to be a series regular on another show. It’s not about social justice; it’s about contracts and storytelling.
But The 100 doesn’t exist in its own little bubble. It’s part of the wider media landscape, and every plot twist is colored not just by the show’s fictional world, but by the tropes and narrative structures that we’re used to seeing. To remove it from the language of social justice, it’s like reading a YA novel with a protagonist who can’t remember her past — the minute you hear there’s a lost princess, you know it’s the protagonist, no matter what else the book has said, and authors have to write with that in mind.
Basically, you can’t tell a story without some awareness of how audiences will respond to it. Anyone who claims that they just follow the will of the plot without ever thinking of the audience is either lying or just not that good a writer. You have to be at least somewhat aware of what the reader might bring to the story and of the context created by popular stories that have come before. Otherwise, you can end up uncritically falling into cliche after cliche.
So here, we have a TV trope: Bury Your Gays or Dead Lesbian Syndrome. It’s the tendency for gay characters to die far more often than straight characters in fiction. When a writer kills off a gay character, they’re invoking the trope, whether they mean to or not, and so they need to think critically about that moment, whether it’s necessary, and how, if it is necessary, they can avoid being cliche. This is true even with generally harmless tropes like “The Chosen One,” but it’s doubly true when dealing with tropes that involve violence toward marginalized groups, where the risk isn’t just being cliche but doing actual harm.
Sure, most writers who fall into the Bury Your Gays trope don’t do so maliciously. But ignorance doesn’t negate the context. Unless the CW pauses the show mid-episode to broadcast an interview with the writer, most viewers never hear the creators’ justifications. They experience the show as it was aired, and react to it based on what’s come before in the series and on what other shows and stories have conditioned them to expect. Writers can’t say “oh, I didn’t mean it that way” and so escape blame.
And the troubling context of Lexa’s death in The 100 stretches beyond a history of lesbian characters being killed off in fiction. The show’s creators actively courted an LGBTQ audience, promoting the show as something revolutionary and really emphasizing the relationship between Clarke and Lexa. So when the show not only falls into old plot tropes by killing Lexa, but does so within moments of the two characters getting together, it feels like an extra kick in the teeth. The writers told fans, “You’re safe here,” and then abandoned them. They killed Lexa almost as an accident, an afterthought, in a way that was closely tied to her relationship with Clarke, when she was a fierce warrior character who could have been written off the show on her own terms.
And I think that’s another important thing here. The 100 could have written Lexa out of the show — killed her off, even — without invoking this outcry. The problem isn’t just that this trope exists, but that the show exhibited lazy writing when dealing with it. If Lexa had died in a blaze of glory, or even just died due to her own mistake as a commander, people might still have commented that lesbians always die, but at least there would have been sense to it. Lexa would have died as Lexa, not as the lesbian plot device.
Because yes, problematic storytelling from others has created a context where creators have to be extra careful and think about the connotations of their plots in a wider media narrative about minorities. But when people get upset about issues like Lexa’s death, they’re not demanding any kind of special narrative treatment. They just want these storylines to receive the same attention and narrative care that other storylines receive — for writers to consider the context, and give these characters and tropes as much thought as any other element of a good story.